Do You Know Who Set To Tune The Immortal Song 'Kurai Ondrum Illai'? Most Likely You Wouldn’t

K Balakumar

May 18, 2024, 07:27 PM | Updated 07:27 PM IST

Kadayanallur Venkataraman (centre) and MS Subbulakshmi (left)
Kadayanallur Venkataraman (centre) and MS Subbulakshmi (left)
  • The life and times of Kadayanallur Venkataraman is a lesson in humility and self-effacing temperament.
  • Last December at one of concerts during the annual Chennai music festival, an up and coming singer duo were delicately crooning the song Dolayam Chala Dolayam.  

    Listening to the bouncy, swinging number, one rasika seated next to me told another, "Annamacharya sure knew how to turn the phrases around musically".

    Indeed the Dolayam song was created by Annamacharya, the 14th century legend who created thousands of songs. But it is not clear whether Dolayam, as it is popular now in the winsome Khamas raag, was actually set to tune by the great saint composer.

    Most of Annamacharya's samkirtanas, in praise of Lord Venkateswara, are now said to be lost to the world.

    Out of the over 32,000 samkirtanas that he is believed to have created, only around 12,000 are available now.

    But many of those songs exist as verses without musical form. Back in the 1970s, there was a concerted effort to reclaim some of the lost treasures of Annamacharya. The movement emerged from the then united Andhra, and was spearheaded by the venerable Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam (TTD), which manages India's most popular temple at Tirumala.

    TTD put to work the veteran Carnatic music singers M Balamuralikrishna and Nedunuri Krihnamoorthy to tune Annamacharya kritis.

    They unearthed many hidden gems and set them to music. For instance, the hugely popular Muddugare Yashoda in its current form was tuned in by the skilful Nedunuri Krishamoorthy.

    While Balamurali and Nedunuri were also at it, TTD in 1979 had the brainwave to record some of Annamacharya's gems by M S Subbulakshmi.

    TTD was planning to raise funds for the temple through those recordings. The great singer was at that time verily the devotional voice of India as her bhakti-filled renditions were lapped up by Indians across States beyond language and cultural barriers.

    As was  the norm in those days, the performances were to be brought in vinyl record form. The album, named Balaji Pancharatnamala, was to have five parts (a sixth part was later added), and it also had songs of composers like Jeyadevar. But the bulk was Annamacharya's, and for the same, MS sang some of the songs tuned by Nedunuri and Balamuralikrishna too.

    But she and her husband Sadasivam, who was usually the brain behind such projects, wanted many new songs of Annamacharya to be included for the album to be successful.

    So they got down to picking from the huge collection of kirtanas. They zeroed in on a few. But to set them to musical form was a daunting exercise.

    Kadayanallur Venkataraman’s musical imagination was rich

    And it is here that the hero of this piece, Kadayanallur Venkataraman, comes in.

    Now, he was practically an insider in the MS household. A musician in his own right, Venkataraman, who learnt music at Swati Thirunal Music College in Thiruvananthapuram, had undergone stints under veterans like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, B Rajam Iyer and Chemba Vaidynatha Bhagavathar.

    He however couldn't make a breakthrough as a singer.

    He was a staffer at AIR, Madras, then and conducted music classes on radio.

    His understanding of music was said to be deep and he had a great ear for sruthi perfection (he was a master at tuning the tambura and veteran musicians fell back on him to set their instrument to proper tune).

    Anyway, the winds of destiny brought him to the MS and he accompanied her on tambura on quite a few occasions. MS and Sadasivam understood that Venkataraman had a great grasp of the intricacies of Carnatic music. So he became part of the MS household, giving his musical inputs to her singing and also helping in her song recordings.

    In those days, MS would not go to recording sessions without Venkataraman, who had quite an ear for pitch and precision. He also had, according to various stories, a good grasp of language and pronunciation.

    So when MS sat down to musically conceptualise the Annamacharya project, Venkataraman also became an intrinsic part of it. The man had an innate gift for understanding lyrics and how they could be chiseled for music. He put that to work and began to musicalise the lines Annamacharya. 

    And what emerged out of his imagination is now part of the modern Carnatic musical lore.

    He understood that Dolayam needed to have a breezy feel and hence fit it to Khamas, which had a natural easy flow to it.

    Or take Bhavayami Gopalabalam. There is a preternatural feel to it in raag Yaman Kalyani. And MS herself is quoted as saying that the tune emerged out of Venkataraman most organically without much outward effort. It was as if it existed there, and he was merely throwing light on it.

    The remarkable partnership with MS

    For the lullabyish Jo Acyutandana, Venakataraman eschewed the predictable Neelambari, but went for the soothing Kaapi, which he felt would do more justice to its inherent lilt. How right he was.

    Here go, listen to the entire playlist of Annamachrya songs set to tune by the unheralded Venkataraman. My favourites among the many glittering musical diamonds is Rara Chinnanna in the brisk Jhinjhoti (Senjurutti) and the Kedaragowla Koluvudee Bhakthi Kondala

    The thing is Venkataraman not only understood the essential bhava of the song but also MS' strengths as a singer and that is why he would blend the both in ragamalikas so that bhakti and musicality are not compromised.  The eternal pleaser Entamatramu is a great example of that.

    Of course, the bhakti anthem in most Tamil households, Kurai Ondrum Ilai, a composition written by Rajaji, is in ragamalika, and it is a musical creation of Venkataraman who always shied away from limelight. The relatively simple lyrics get a heightened feel and emotion thanks to the adroit musical design and the inspired singing from MS. 

    Not only that, MS's most famous rendition of Hanuman Chalisa, the Tulsidas-created hymn in Awadhi, were again musically imagined by the creativity of Venkataraman.

    Though he was not prolific, and took time for his works, Venkatraman was also said to be the musical brain behind MS's Ganesha Pancharatnam and Meenakshi Panchatratnam, all among her popular chartbusters.

    The entire Balaji Pancharatnamala album (all the six volumes) is among the biggest hits of MS’ extraordinary career. And Vekataraman’s contribution in that timeless project was no less small. (MS, by the way, donated all the royalty earnings from the album to charity).     

    The unsung hero behind many songs 

    Despite such phenomenal work, Venkataraman is hardly known even among the musical community. Only a handful are aware of his remarkable contributions. There is not even a Wikipedia page in his name.

    The only two articles of note on him that are readily available on the internet is by the respected writer and singer Gowri Ramnarayan (this granddaughter of writer Kalki, was also an accompanying singer on stage to MS on many occasions).

    Was he kept away from the limelight by Sadasivam, who it was said was pretty mindful of the musical image of MS?

    Did Sadasivam not want Venkataraman to walk away with the credits?

    That seems most unlikely as by most accounts Venkataraman himself did not like to be the centre of attraction. A self-effacing sort, he was more comfortable tuning and playing around with swaras

    Towards the end of his career, in the account of Gowri Ramnarayan, Venkataraman could be seen operating a small telephone booth outside the St Isabell's hospital in Mylapore, Chennai (it was run by his son who was physically-challenged).

    A grand musical brain behind many of the songs that were rendered in the nearby sabhas in Mylapore was actually sitting inside a cramped telephone kiosk and making do with life may seem a cruel irony. But Venkataraman was not a complaining sort. He accepted life as it is with rare equanimity.    

    He died twenty years ago (6 February, 2004) totally unsung.  But Venkataraman, whichever heaven he is now, can take satisfaction from the fact that what he tuned will never go unsung. In that sense, Kurai Ondrum Illai, Govinda! 

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